Letting some of it trickle out while trying to soak it all in

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Honest difference or intentional deception?

A couple months ago my friend Daniel asked me about how scientists were responding to the following Fox News article, Arctic sea ice up 60 percent in 2013. The article points out that the minimum extent of arctic sea ice increased dramatically by more than a million square miles from 2012, reversing the trend of ice loss, and now some scientists are worried about global cooling.

Before I responded, I looked up the data the article was based on from the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC). Here is the figure from that report.

Inline image 1
As you can see, the article is technically correct. Compared to 2012 (the all-time lowest year on record), 2013 was a bumper year for ice. On the other hand, if this is how Fox News reads long-term trends, let's be glad they're not in the financial sector.

So my question is, did the authors see this figure and really think it represented a recovery, or did they intentionally misrepresent the trend? I believe that people can look at the same data and honestly arrive at very different conclusions (Taylor Swift and Mackelmore both know what the Bieber has done but they don't agree on whether he should be deported). However, that is a very different phenomenon than intentionally pitching a twisted story.

My friend Martin, the famous walrus researcher (as famous as you can get studying walrus I suppose), got a flurry of inquiries about this article, including from several high-ups in local and state government. A report that clearly confirmed the trend of decreasing sea ice, identifying 2013 as the 6th lowest on record, and noted that ice was more than a 1.5 million square miles below average, became a propaganda tool denying the reality of human-caused climate change with a wave of the magic mass media wand.

So again, my question is, who or what is perpetuating (or perpetrating) this bad journalism? Is it simply news agencies headlining to increase sales, editors catering to the world-views of their audience or sponsors, or is it a symptom of too much or too little regulation of what can be called journalism? I don't have an answer but I'd love to hear what you think. Comment fast before the globe cools down and the internet turns off.


  1. It's difficult for me to see anything that Fox News puts out and not think how they have spun it for their target audience. Especially everything that I see from their television "news". They are certainly not the only ones who are guilty of this, though. I watched a really interesting documentary on Netflix recently called 'Patriocracy' that discusses the issue of modern "news" not being journalism at all. It is so difficult now to find sources for information that you can trust to not have been passed through a heavily tinted filter. I'm grateful for my science background that has taught me to be critical of things that I read, but not everyone has that perspective and "news" organizations will and do exploit that. Maybe we should add a 'critical reading' course in high school.

  2. Good call Andy (about the high school course and the problem not being a respecter of specific news outlets). I didn't mean to imply that Fox was the only perpetrator. What did Patriocracy claim had brought about the change in journalism? What is different now than at any time reporting and revenue mix?

    1. They didn't give any analysis as to why it might be different now. My best guess is that the availability of cable and the ease of communication/the low cost of just analyzing news rather than doing investigative journalism are all partly to blame. It costs a whole lot less to pay one talking head a lot of money to tell people what they want to hear rather than to pay a team of journalists to actually get out and do some investigation. And it even seems to get more people to watch. Probably because you're telling them what they want to hear.

  3. It certainly seems that the reader-/listener-/viewership of any given news outlet has a fairly clear taste in the news and headlines they like to see. I can't help but wonder: if news media presented only fact without spin, would the "taste" of viewers evolve, and would half-truth, propaganda, and lies stand out garishly?

    I read somewhere recently the assertion that humans have an inherent right not to be lied to. An interesting point, and I believe a very arguable right. Could it be protected, and if so, what would then be the state of news media and its consumers?

  4. Ugh. I spend a huge amount of time trying to to be a Professor of Un-Confusing People About Climate Change (not my official job title, but close enough). Understanding the difference between transient daily and seasonal weather patterns and long-term trends is a major challenge for a lot of people -- not surprisingly, because the data are messy, and statistical analysis is not a subject that is taught particularly well in American schools. Obfuscation by Fox News, needless to say, is not terribly helpful. Sigh. But if anyone wants to look at cool animations of what the sea ice trends look like prior to 2013 (those data aren't quite formatted yet), we have a fun online tool on our website. http://seaiceatlas.snap.uaf.edu/explore#date/2011/01 (Climate maps and graphs and info, oh my!)

  5. The climate crisis is over! Thanks Fox News :)
    Robert Greenwald, quit telling me they've got a political agenda!

  6. Confirmation bias is partly to blame for why we choose our news sources. "I don't believe man causes global warming, so I get my news from sources that won't startle me with information that is contrary to my belief." We're all guilty of it and it's a difficult thought error to try and correct. But business is business and getting high ratings for reporting the "news" is good for business. So if a news agency sees that debunking one scientific finding gets high ratings, then they'll continue to report similar stories in order to keep those ratings high.

    Dr. Oz is a good example from the world of medical science (since I don't know nothin about climate scientology and whatnot). He was a surgeon before he abandoned science for television, so at some point he must have understood that in medicine we make decisions based upon evidence. Good decisions come from quality evidence. Quality evidence comes from well-designed studies. He knows that (somewhere in his mind, he must). Yet he has a TV show that uses STORIES as evidence to convince people of trendy health tips (snake oils) which are backed by... his word. Why is this? Because there is a market for it. If he got on TV and quoted the findings of randomized, placebo-controlled, double blind, double dummy drug trials he would bore us to death (medical fact, I've died many times now in pharmacy school).

    TV is entertainment, not a good source of medical advice. News is no exception. If you want to learn more about climate change, read some reputable studies, or ask Ben Abbott. If you want to learn about make believe, let paid actors with great hair read it to you on your favorite news channel.

    (Warning: this comment was written by a person with a brain that is tainted with confirmation bias.)

  7. You guys are making me feel better about this ... well sort of. Isn't there a demand for evidence-based journalism? Confirmation bias aside, don't a lot of people want to hear accurate accounts of happenings whether it supports or challenges their view? Objectivity is impossible, but there are reasonable Pinocchio-tests we can apply to weed out really misleading material.

    Perennial question of regulation I suppose. I agree that consumer protection laws are for the benefit of the consumer and producer (and could be considered a "right"), but implementation gets touchy when the regulation touches freedom of expression. Suppression of "unreliable media" is what triggered the sequence of events ending in Joseph Smith's murder (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nauvoo_Expositor). There is a good treatment of systematic bias in media here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Media_bias_in_the_United_States.

    It does seem that the "solution" is to increase our ability to critically judge between strong and weak arguments. Break out the midnight oil all you teachers!

  8. I've pretty well accepted that Fox News is a propoganda machine.

  9. Hi Ben - I've read your post and the Fox article several times each, and I'm honestly confused. Where do the authors state that the 2013 increase has "reversed the trend" of ice loss, or that this represents a "long-term trend?" I'm not seeing it. The closest thing seems like Tsonis' quote about a "cooling trend," but this is presented accurately as a single scientists' opinion. Furthermore, the article does acknowledge that there is still a significant ice "deficit" and gives attention to explanations set forth by scientists in an upcoming UN report. All told it seems surprisingly honest and balanced to me, considering Fox's (deserved IMO) reputation for bias.

    It seems to me they're pretty clearly writing specifically about 2013, correctly pointing out that we've actually gained considerable ice in a year when at least one climate scientist predicted there would be none left at all (see http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/7139797.stm ). IMO that discrepancy is newsworthy considering how modeling predictions drive much of the climate change debate, do you agree?


  10. Thanks for your comment Eric. It's good to have a variety of perspectives (that was the point of my original post), especially since the thread so far has been primarily one view.

    You make a good point that the article does eventually address the facts and is technically true throughout (as a careful reader like yourself will see). However, the emphasis, presentation, and overall message is deeply biased in my opinion.

    Before giving perspective from anyone in the field of arctic sea ice or climate change, the article devotes five paragraphs to the fact that arctic sea ice is increasing not decreasing. The first scientist quoted (Tsonis) has little qualification in the field (though he is at least a climatologist, albeit one who studies El Nino) besides having the opinion that climate change has stopped. After three paragraphs on the actual report, the article finishes with another four addressing "climate gate", implying that there is considerable scientific controversy whether human-caused climate change is occurring, and presenting a statistical hack-job about the average annual climate over the last 16 years.

    But my main issue with the article is the headline and basic premise. Sea ice was up 60% in 2013 only when compared with a single year in the record (which was the all-time minimum). In reality it was down almost 50% when compared to typical ice-conditions (the appropriate comparison). The article reports a very different message than presented in the NSIDC report it is based on, hence my claim that it is biased.

    The BBC article covering the 2007 publication projecting the possibility of an ice-free arctic by 2013 isn't bias free, but the difference is, the message it presents (including the sensational headline) is based on the findings of that study. In the article they cite the the premier ice researcher in the world who provides perspective that the projected ice-decrease is probably too aggressive and 2030 is a more realistic horizon for an ice-free arctic. Again, the difference is that the Fox article conflates year-to-year variability with climate (which is by definition a long-term average) and their coverage implies a different conclusion than put forward by the story they are covering.

    I agree that discrepancies between model projections and reality are very interesting, however 2013 was not a deviation from the long-term trend of sea-ice loss in the arctic. It is in line with the ensemble model projection which forecasts an ice-free arctic within a few decades. Using a single year of data, compared to another single year, and presenting that as a trend that is dramatically different from climate models is dishonest and biased.

    My question still stands though, as to WHY news agencies engage in this kind of garbling. Fox has attracted my attention because I find their treatment of climate change as consistently unreliable, but they are surely not the only outlet to engage.

    1. Ben, thanks for the thorough response. I do agree that Fox spins the story to suggest a long term change in climate trend. It's encouraging though that many other readers - politicians, even! - were calling up your walrus expert friend for clarification… this means they were reading critically! (right?) I suppose that’s why I find Fox’s bias to be mostly harmless – because it’s obvious to everyone now, so we can read it with a big grain of salt or just not read it at all.

      Re: your main question, I agree with others here that confirmation bias is the culprit. I think it’s present everywhere to varying degrees (Fox/MSNBC being two of the most egregious), and it’s worsened recently perhaps because real news providers must now compete for clicks/ratings with blogs, comedy “news” shows, social media, etc. which can be unabashedly biased since they’re not held to the same journalism standards. Even science is struggling with confirmation bias actually, as a recent NYT op-ed describes:


      As a research chemist I’ve witnessed this problem in my own field, which is why I cringe when I see sensationalized stories like the “ice-free by 2013” BBC article. That article doesn’t just mention but *headlines* a single radical prediction, touts its accuracy for the majority of the text, offers a minimal amount of counterargument at the very end... and then turns out to be totally wrong. I’m all for reducing anthropogenic emissions, but to me this type of bias is worse than Fox’s because it damages the credibility of science for the sake of selling a story.


  11. Great questions, Ben. I've been teaching a class entitled "Russian through news media" and, as you might imagine, the question of bias comes up a lot.

    My experience in linguistics has been that in any scientific pursuit there is always a counter argument. Regulation that quiets one side of the argument goes against the very ideals of growing scientific knowledge and devising a reasonable classification of what should be censored may be impossible. Maybe news articles should be subject to peer review:)

    While poking around on this topic I ran across this snopes article: http://www.snopes.com/politics/science/globalwarming1922.asp It's fun that it shows (1) misleading news articles are not new and (2) short-term and long-term trends have not been distinguished well on both sides of the question.

    On the idea of regulation of journalism -- what about news satire that blatantly parades misinformation with the assumption that readers will recognize the point behind it?

  12. Well, while I agree that Fox News is biased, it is also true that confirmation bias cuts both ways: "more hurricanes this year -- it must be global climate change." Both sides have shown this bias. Easy to do with something that we record daily with considerable variation, but expect to see changes on the decade scale.

  13. I agree, both sides have quite a bit of confirmation bias and Fox loves to spin. And the models are in fact models, and as such are simplistic when compared to the actual world. If they weren't so they would be have been able to predict this up spike. Confirmation bias is a sneaky little devil. I guess that is why I try to read and consider the opposing schools of thought. I guess that makes my brain tainted too :)
    But all that aside shouldn't both sides be happy to see an increase in ice? I know that two data points merely form a line, not a trend, but if we are truly concerned about retreating ice, shouldn't we rejoice if it makes an advance? We don't know for certain whether it is like a dying gasp or a sudden improvement in conditions. But the thought experiment is interesting. How would you react if the next year has more ice, then the next, and so on until it was a trend. Would we be pleased? Or would we think it a temporary lapse in the trend? Or would we take it as confirmation that are efforts to reduce emissions have worked? Or are we to be forever pessimistic? I don't know, just a path my brain wanders down when I hear stories like this.

  14. Ben, it's an interesting question (hope you'll accept this comment even though my last comment misspelled arctic and had a grammar error). For me the question comes down to this: are such people stupid (and thus unable to understand the science) or just political schemers who don't care about the facts or the issue other than in terms of how it furthers their agenda. Neither choice is very attractive.

  15. Fun conversation everybody. No time for full responses but a few thoughts:

    1. There is uncertainty associated with all models and for goodness' sake, let's hope they are wrong (concerning possible futures with continued greenhouse gas emissions). If they are wrong and the climate system (and human and environmental systems that depend on it) is much more resilient than we currently understand, we will all rejoice. However, hope is a poor principle to base future planning on. It is reckless and irresponsible to count on the models always being wrong in our favor.
    2. There is a big difference between a scientific study that has a failed prediction and a news story that misrepresents the findings of a study. The BBC article correctly publicized the prediction of the study it was covering. Furthermore, while the timeline of the prediction was off, potentially by a decade or more, its general trend has been confirmed by subsequent sea ice. My interest in the subject is what accounts for the difference between the spin of the news article and the published scientific finding (which is a different subject than whether the scientific finding ultimately proves true).
    3. Both sides do engage in conflating weather with climate, that doesn't go to show, however, that we can't ever connect climate to weather. There are many general and specific predictions about frequency and distribution of weather events that are being tested.

    Love you guys.